Being excluded is one of the worst feelings in the world. Ask any middle schooler and they will tell you it's the thing they fear most - it's not getting bad grades or angering their parents - it's being deemed an outsider at school, not worthy or altogether forgotten. When we think back to our early school years, most of us can remember the painful experience of being excluded at one time or another. It may have been not getting an invitation to a party, or being left out of a game on the playground. Or it was much worse: systematically being bullied and shunned by classmates.
You would think that being excluded would be an experience that disappears as we age. When we get older and wiser, we are more thoughtful and inclusive, right? Not always. In fact, it often continues into adulthood and has some familiar emotional pangs. It can bring up a lot of painful feelings of being unwanted and unworthy, and as adults (just like kids), it can be experienced as alienation and loneliness.
A bright, outgoing professional woman came to see me for therapy not long ago. Despite having a rewarding and good paying job, she was feeling increasingly unhappy at work. She believed that she knew why she was feeling that way, but was embarrassed to even admit it. Several of her office mates would regularly go out to lunch together, without including her. My client would even go as far as saying, "have a nice lunch!" as they departed, but inside she was feeling like the 12 year old girl left out on the playground.
Same awful feeling.
My client felt like an outsider with no tribe of her own. It brought back memories of her childhood, being the daughter of an army officer who moved around a lot. She never had an enduring friendship. Each school year brought another round of "Who are you? Where are you from?" She was always the outsider.
Hearing my client's story, I reflected on my own experiences of exclusion. However, instead of remembering times when I had been excluded (and I did have them), my attention was brought to a time when I had excluded others. On one occasion, I had purposely not invited someone to a party I was having. I felt that since it was my party, I had the right to only invite the people I preferred. In all honesty, I did not feel good about my decision during the party, nor afterwards. Other party guests inquired about the excluded person and I gave my reasons for not inviting. It felt so lame though. Couldn't I have chosen the higher road? How awful would it have been if that person had been there? I realized that by not inviting that person, I was showing myself to be selfish and uncaring. This was not how I wanted to be seen, nor how I saw myself.
At a gathering recently, I asked people about a time in their lives when they felt excluded. The words loneliness and shame came up quite a bit. Being excluded made many of them feel alone and unconnected, but more importantly they felt ashamed of themselves - that being excluded made them feel that there was something wrong with them. If somehow they were more attractive, more successful, funnier, smarter, and so on, then they would have been included. Some people also shared memories of when they had excluded others. They too felt ashamed of themselves for being so thoughtless and mean-spirited. They felt remorse over hurting others' feelings, some even wishing that they could apologize to the people that they had hurt long ago. I felt the same way. How interesting that excluding others had negative repercussions on both sides of the equation.
I have always contended that most of human suffering is the result of disconnection from others. I see it in my practice every day. When people feel that they belong, their depression, anxiety, and feelings of alienation begin to subside.
Back to my client's dilemma: perhaps the easy answer would be for her to ask if she could join her co-workers for lunch. But what if they said no? Or what if they agreed, only to have the lunch be incredibly awkward and uncomfortable? So, how do we recover from exclusion? How can we be more inclusive? Here are some ways - perhaps you can think of others:
• Find your own tribe. Seek out others that may share your interests - or better yet, seek out others that have different interests.
• Seek professional help if feeling excluded persists into your adult life. Very often there are unresolved feelings from the past that are getting in the way of you being able to move forward. Getting therapy will help you face your feelings of shame and rejection.
• Invite the people who exclude you to a lunch or gathering of yours. My client could ask her co-workers out for a particular occasion - to celebrate a work anniversary or a completed project. Once you break through that initial wall, it's easier to be included for future events.
• If you regularly go out with a certain group of people and want to maintain that membership, at least once in a while have a "guest appearance" by someone that you purposely invite. Rotate the honors among people in your group. The invited person is apt to feel appreciated and grateful, even if they are not "a regular".
Remember the saying, "the more, the merrier"? There's a reason why it's a popular phrase. The more people that are included, the more chance of having stimulating conversations, learning new things, and making connections that could lead to a new job, a romantic interest, or a new hobby. If you're always going to lunch or socializing with the same group of people, you are limiting your possibilities.
So, open your world. Include more people in your life. Then everyone wins.